“The Right to Take Oneself Off,” an essay by Ambrose Bierce

“The Right to Take Oneself Off”

by

Ambrose Bierce


 

A person who loses heart and hope through a personal bereavement is like a grain of sand on the seashore complaining that the tide has washed a neighboring grain out of reach. He is worse, for the bereaved grain cannot help itself; it has to be a grain of sand and play the game of tide, win or lose; whereas he can quit—by watching his opportunity can “quit a winner.” For sometimes we do beat “the man who keeps the table”—never in the long run, but infrequently and out of small stakes. But this is no time to “cash in” and go, for you can not take your little winning with you. The time to quit is when you have lost a big stake, your fool hope of eventual success, your fortitude and your love of the game. If you stay in the game, which you are not compelled to do, take your losses in good temper and do not whine about them. They are hard to bear, but that is no reason why you should be.

But we are told with tiresome iteration that we are “put here” for some purpose (not disclosed) and have no right to retire until summoned—it may be by small-pox, it may be by the bludgeon of a blackguard, it may be by the kick of a cow; the “summoning” Power (said to be the same as the “putting” Power) has not a nice taste in the choice of messengers. That “argument” is not worth attention, for it is unsupported by either evidence or anything remotely resembling evidence. “Put here.” Indeed! And by the keeper of the table who “runs” the “skin game.” We were put here by our parents—that is all anybody knows about it; and they had no more authority than we, and probably no more intention.

The notion that we have not the right to take our own lives comes of our consciousness that we have not the courage. It is the plea of the coward—his excuse for continuing to live when he has nothing to live for—or his provision against such a time in the future. If he were not egotist as well as coward he would need no excuse. To one who does not regard himself as the center of creation and his sorrow as the throes of the universe, life, if not worth living, is also not worth leaving. The ancient philosopher who was asked why he did not the if, as he taught, life was no better than death, replied: “Because death is no better than life.” We do not know that either proposition is true, but the matter is not worth bothering about, for both states are supportable—life despite its pleasures and death despite its repose.

It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicide in the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on long after endurance has ceased to be a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable and unselfish act. Antony, Brutus, Cato, Seneca—these were not of the kind of men to do deeds of cowardice and folly. The smug, self-righteous modern way of looking upon the act as that of a craven or a lunatic is the creation of priests, Philistines and women. If courage is manifest in endurance of profitless discomfort it is cowardice to warm oneself when cold, to cure oneself when ill, to drive away mosquitoes, to go in when it rains. The “pursuit of happiness,” then, is not an “inalienable right,” for that implies avoidance of pain. No principle is involved in this matter; suicide is justifiable or not, according to circumstances; each case is to be considered on its merits and he having the act under advisement is sole judge. To his decision, made with whatever light he may chance to have, all honest minds will bow. The appellant has no court to which to take his appeal. Nowhere is a jurisdiction so comprehensive as to embrace the right of condemning the wretched to life.

Suicide is always courageous. We call it courage in a soldier merely to face death—say to lead a forlorn hope—although he has a chance of life and a certainty of “glory.” But the suicide does more than face death; he incurs it, and with a certainty, not of glory, but of reproach. If that is not courage we must reform our vocabulary.

True, there may be a higher courage in living than in dying—a moral courage greater than physical. The courage of the suicide, like that of the pirate, is not incompatible with a selfish disregard of the rights and interests of others—a cruel recreancy to duty and decency. I have been asked: “Do you not think it cowardly when a man leaves his family unprovided for, to end his life, because he is dissatisfied with life in general?” No, I do not; I think it selfish and cruel. Is not that enough to say of it? Must we distort words from their true meaning in order more effectually to damn the act and cover its author with a greater infamy? A word means something; despite the maunderings of the lexicographers, it does not mean whatever you want it to mean. “Cowardice” means the fear of danger, not the shirking of duty. The writer who allows himself as much liberty in the use of words as he is allowed by the dictionary-maker and by popular consent is a bad writer. He can make no impression on his reader, and would do better service at the ribbon-counter.

The ethics of suicide is not a simple matter; one can not lay down laws of universal application, but each case is to be judged, if judged at all, with a full knowledge of all the circumstances, including the mental and moral make-up of the person taking his own life—an impossible qualification for judgment. One’s time, race and religion have much to do with it. Some people, like the ancient Romans and the modern Japanese, have considered suicide in certain circumstances honorable and obligatory; among ourselves it is held in disfavor. A man of sense will not give much attention to considerations of that kind, excepting in so far as they affect others, but in judging weak offenders they are to be taken into the account. Speaking generally, then, I should say that in our time and country the following persons (and some others) are justified in removing themselves, and that to some of them it is a duty:

One afflicted with a painful or loathsome and incurable disease.

One who is a heavy burden to his friends, with no prospect of their relief.

One threatened with permanent insanity.

One irreclaimably addicted to drunkenness or some similarly destructive or offensive habit.

One without friends, property, employment or hope.

One who has disgraced himself.

Why do we honor the valiant soldier, sailor, fireman? For obedience to duty? Not at all; that alone—without the peril—seldom elicits remark, never evokes enthusiasm. It is because he faced without flinching the risk of that supreme disaster—or what we feel to be such—death. But look you: the soldier braves the danger of death; the suicide braves death itself! The leader of the forlorn hope may not be struck. The sailor who voluntarily goes down with his ship may be picked up or cast ashore. It is not certain that the wall will topple until the fireman shall have descended with his precious burden. But the suicide—his is the foeman that never missed a mark, his the sea that gives nothing back; the wall that he mounts bears no man’s weight And his, at the end of it all, is the dishonored grave where the wild ass of public opinion “Stamps o’er his head but can not break his sleep.”

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